Infinity Ward pulled us into the Call of Duty franchise with the first entry back in 2003, taking it to another level with the now legendary Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Unfortunately, the latter's success took Activision down a road where each new entry pulled the series in a new direction, each time moving further away from the Call of Duty we fell in love with in the first place. Maps became overly complicated with designs that favoured dexterity and reflexes instead of tactical thinking, while the gameplay sometimes lacked the innovation other developers had been introducing to the genre around the same time. Just saying that the games were going back to "boots on the ground" wasn't enough - they had to show it as well. That's where Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 comes in. Treyarch has gone back to the drawing board, removing stuff like wall-running and far-future tech, and making some very interesting changes to the formula that helped build the fanbase in the first place. The result is a game that pulled us back in so hard that we might have gotten whiplash.
This became clear after just a few minutes in our first multiplayer match. Militia is a completely new map in Black Ops 4, but it still felt like an old friend. We instantly knew where potential snipers would be waiting, what kind of cover was waiting around the corner, and where the different choke points would be. Why? Not only because we didn't have to account for gummi bears-esque enemies surprising us from pretty much anywhere with some nifty wall-running or parkour, but also because the core philosophy behind every map is back to what made Crash, Estate, Favela, Nuke Town, Terminal, and Overgrown instant fan-favourites all those years ago. Most of the maps in Black Ops 4 have what can only be described as a natural flow and elegance that intuitively draws different kinds of players to areas that suit their playstyles. You can be fairly certain about where potential threats could be coming from within seconds in each situation, which makes each map feel comfortably balanced for all kinds of players. Top this with four classic Black Ops maps making their return, plus Nuketown in November, and you have what might be the best line-up in years.
Modes such as Team Deathmatch, Kill Confirmed and Domination are back, while the new modes Control and Heist bring some fresh air to an otherwise familiar selection. Control is basically an evolution of Domination where each team alternates between attacking and defending two areas. The twist is that each team has 25 collective lives per round, which brings an extra layer of strategy to the combat. This is where all of the Specialists have their chance to shine. Picking defensive Specialists like Torque or Recon will allow you to stand your ground in a specific area while defending, fighting off the waves of enemies. Picking offensive types like Firebreak and Battery, on the other hand, will make it a lot easier to devastate your enemies by either hitting their position with full force or having the upper hand in duels. Fighting for control of the different areas as you get fewer lives is a lot of fun, so this could easily become one of the most popular modes from the get-go.
Heist is also new to Black Ops 4 but should feel familiar for those of you who've played Counter-Strike or Payday 2. Two teams are trying to steal a bag of cash and extract it. You're not starting with your regular classes and weapons, however. Each player starts with just a pistol and $500 in the first round and then has to consider what they want to buy for their money. Better weapons, equipment, and perks cost more, so you'll have to decide what you want between each no-respawn round. Extracting the bag will give you quite the advantage by giving you a lot more money in the next round, but carelessly running for it could lead to an untimely death and maybe losing the armour you paid a lot of money for. It's a great mode for those of you looking for a lot of tension and slower gameplay, but maybe not so much for those of you wanting fast-paced action and lots of kills.
Balance is also an important word in terms of the different Specialists. It doesn't matter if you have an offensive, defensive, or supportive playstyle, you'll have no problems finding one for every situation. We're not talking about characters with the same personality and charm as the ones from Overwatch, but there's no doubt that Treyarch has taken inspiration from hero-shooters with each Specialist having unique abilities and gear. Love going on the offensive and surprising enemies with devastating attacks? Then you'll have a lot of fun with Ruin's Grav Slam and Grapple Gun. More of a supportive type? Crash's Tak-5 will heal both you and nearby teammates, while his Assault Pack serves your team with much-needed ammo. To put it simply, each Specialist's ability can turn the tide of war in seconds, with their equipment causing waves in different ways. Our only concern about the system is that some of the classes seem to be basically useless in certain modes. Torque's deployable cover and razor wire are about as useful as a chocolate teapot in Team Deathmatch, but in the new Control mode, on the other hand, he's the kind of character you can build your whole strategy around. It's not exactly a big problem when we have a plethora of options to choose from, but it clearly shows why similar games usually have fewer modes.
Familiarising yourself with the different abilities shouldn't be a big problem, as a mode called Specialist HQ works both as a tutorial and a surprisingly good lore-builder. It's not exactly a real campaign, but Treyarch hasn't been scrimping on the impressive cinematics between each segment. The studio has certainly taken inspiration from Overwatch and has tried to give each Specialist some personality via these shorts and cartoons, while at the same time giving us some nice sequences to polish our skills without fear of other players cutting our practice short.
Another thing that makes our minor complaint about certain Specialists being less impactful is the fact that the Pick 10 system returns, letting you equip your soldier with the weapons, attachments, equipment, perks, scorestreaks, and Wildcards you want. Cutting the more futuristic stuff hasn't impeded your options too much; there's still an overabundance of things to choose from, with each weapon having its own progression system and attachments. Call of Duty has been known for having some of the most satisfying weapon handling in the industry and Black Ops 4 just cements this reputation. You can feel the punch of shotgun; the blast from a sniper rifle will send shivers down your spine; you feel in control of every tiny movement the different weapons make. Treyarch delivers just what we expected from a top-tier studio in this regard, and we loved it.
Unfortunately, Treyarch changed other aspects of their formula. We played the game before the day one update, but we hope some of the weapons will be rebalanced. Hate it or love it, quick scoping is still very much an option, and some of the sniper rifles seem incredibly over-powered in that regard. Being one-shotted by a sniper that barely even raised the scope before shooting is extremely frustrating (a problem that is especially prevalent on consoles due to the aim assist). There are also a few other examples of weapons that we loved/hated during our time before launch, so we hope that the folks at Treyarch keep their word about quick updates.
Much remains true to form, but Treyarch doesn't follow the traditional recipe in all aspects of the game. One of the most talked about changes is manual healing. Gone are the days where our character magically healed after staying out of trouble for a few seconds. Now we have to replenish our health manually by sacrificing a few valuable milliseconds to stab ourselves with a syringe. This has to be one of the best changes to Call of Duty since Modern Warfare's progression system. Not having to run and hide after taking damage but instead watching the health bar filling up just slowly enough to make you nervous but just fast enough to give you hope makes every encounter exhilarating. The timer is about as long as reloading a heavy weapon, which means that the flow of the combat doesn't dip in the same way that it used to.
This, plus being able to shoot while doing other one-handed actions and the new Fog of War map, makes for what could be the best multiplayer experience in Call of Duty to date. But how about Zombies and Blackout?
There's no doubt that Zombies has become one of the most popular parts of Call of Duty, which is why Black Ops 4 gives us three - four if you buy the season pass - scenarios from the start. With one set on the Titanic, another one in a remastered version of Mob of the Dead, and the third set in a gladiatorial arena, we're getting three wildly different experiences. It's all wrapped up with an enticing and mysterious story that pulled us in with a lot of secrets and some fascinating characters. Running around in ancient Rome while listening to characters making fun of each other and telling meta jokes about how weird it is that modern weaponry is surprisingly easy to come by was, at times, hilarious.
Still, let's admit it, the main draw of Zombies is slaughtering the undead as much as possible while trying to uncover secrets and find all the Easter eggs; Voyage of Despair, Blood of the Dead, and IX deliver loads of both. Summoning special enemies by interacting with specific objects, completing hidden challenges, and gathering items that had to be used in certain places allowed us to upgrade weapons in new ways, find new areas, and unlock new gear, as well as giving us more lore and making us stronger. One of our favourites was spending cash to open a Mystery Box to get a random thing called Homunculus. This little fella replaced our grenades, but boy was it worth it. Not only did he (or it?) yell funny stuff when thrown on the ground, but he also jumped around chopping the heads off a whole load of zombies. Some of the developers didn't even know it existed, so they gathered around our screen, watching on as he massacred a whole room while we took a breather. That's when Zombies director Jason Blundell came by and told us that we hadn't even made it to one of the biggest areas of the map yet, and this was after thirty-two rounds and finding what we thought was every interactable object!
Each scenario both looks and feels different both in terms of level design and zombies, and we enjoyed having so many options. Where Voyage of Despair mostly puts us in tight corridors filled with neatly dressed undead and beefy crew members, Blood of the Dead is a mix of tight and open spaces as it takes us from narrow hallways to the more expansive areas on Alcatraz Island as we fight prisoners and morbid guards. IX is without a doubt the easiest of the three with its more open areas filled with undead gladiators, tigers and more.
Black Ops 4 also offers the most customisable Zombies ever. Using your favourite weapon long enough will let you modify it with attachments, choose which perks you get from different vending machines and alters, buy and choose different elixirs and talismans to bring with you, choose between the more arcadey Rush mode where you compete for the highest score against your friends or the story-focused Classic mode, and more. In short: Treyarch's talk about quantity hasn't lowered the quality. In fact, the quality might be even higher than it was before.
But we all expected Zombies to be great. One of the more questionable parts of the game when first revealed was the battle royale mode Blackout. Well, you can throw those doubts out of the window right away. Blackout delivers just what we want from a battle royale in Call of Duty. The controls are just as perfect as every other part of the game and the weapons feel just as fantastic. The only thing that has changed is the scale and the range at which some of the encounters take place. It's a huge play space, but the signature Call of Duty gameplay works in this new setting, and you'll feel right at home exploring some familiar locations. That said, this enormous map isn't just filled with references to earlier Black Ops games with no thought put into its overall design, and the whole thing fits together nicely.
It's easy to orient yourself because each area feels distinct while at the same time having terrain that makes you feel uneasy every time you go out into the open or whenever you hear a sound. Is it worth running towards Nuketown Island in hopes of grabbing level 3 armour, or should we just make do with what's inside the shed right next to us? You might even be bold enough to go for the best gear in the zombie-filled Asylum, because gathering the best weapons, equipment, and perks can make all the difference when fighting for your life, especially towards the end when the dozens of hopefuls have been whittled down to just a handful of hardened, well-equipped survivors. Either that or you could just test your luck by driving around with one of the vehicles or helicopters found throughout the map, hoping that someone is silly enough to step in front of the hood or propellers.
There's been some discussion about the ballistics of different weapons in Blackout, but it just requires some getting used to in our experience. We're not used to shooting at targets very far away in this series, so it might feel weird at first, but we managed to hit our moving targets a kilometre away after a few rounds. There are enough weapons to facilitate a range of playstyles, and while there is some luck involved in terms of what you find and how quickly you find it, the arsenal and weapon handling worked well in this more expansive battle royale setting. (For a more detailed look at the Blackout mode, check out our impressions from the recent beta.)
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is the breath of fresh air the franchise needed after a few bumpy rides over the last few years. The multiplayer put our boots back on the ground while at the same time introducing manual healing and a more diverse class system to heighten the experience. Zombies delivers more of what we enjoy about the series and even adds some cool customisation options that are sure to please both old and new fans alike. And, finally, Blackout takes some of the best parts of both multiplayer and zombies, mixes them together to make an experience that is sure to give its competitors a real fight. That makes three out of three, which is why we think Black Ops 4 has set the bar both in terms of quality and quantity for the franchise. And we got this far without really mentioning the lack of a single-player campaign. It looks like we didn't miss it after all...